One year after post-Hurricane Isaac fire, Fat Harry’s kitchen reopens

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Fat Harry's kitchen manager Jean-Paul Martin prepares a sandwich on Friday afternoon, the first lunch served in the bar since it was destroyed by fire after Hurricane Isaac. (Robert Morris,

Fat Harry’s kitchen manager Jean-Paul Martin prepares a sandwich on Friday afternoon, the first lunch served in the bar since it was destroyed by fire after Hurricane Isaac. (Robert Morris,

Patrons line the bar for a Fat Harry's lunch on Friday afternoon. (Robert Morris,

Patrons line the bar for a Fat Harry’s lunch on Friday afternoon. (Robert Morris,

It has taken a year — 362 days, to be exact, since a devastating fire following Hurricane Isaac — but landmark St. Charles Avenue bar Fat Harry’s reopened its kitchen Friday in preparation for a grand reopening party on Sunday.

Fat Harry’s opened in 1971, and current owner Debbie Huling began working there a few years later. She and her husband bought the bar in the 1980s, and over the years it became firmly established as a prime gathering point for the university crowd, neighborhood locals and Mardi Gras parade-watchers. After Hurricane Isaac passed, Fat Harry’s was one of the first businesses to reopen while much of Uptown remained without power until the morning of Sept. 2, when a fire ignited in a Jägermeister machine of the closed bar that gutted the building.

Contractors sprang into action after the fire to restore the front of the building, so that the bar could reopen in time for Mardi Gras — which it did in late January, just in time for the first Uptown parade. After that, they shifted focus to the kitchen and the remainder of the building, and Friday lunch was their first day back.

For now, the bar is serving a limited menu of burgers, fries, wings and other Fat Harry’s staples, but Huling said the grand reopening on Sunday will unveil the expanded menu that will be available in a few weeks. A popular former employee, Jean-Paul Martin, has returned to run the kitchen, Huling said, along with most of the staff from before the fire. Without giving away too much, Huling said one of the daily specials will include the bar’s popular meatloaf.

“That was a huge one,” Huling said, but the menu won’t be exactly the same as before, either. “We’re just going to mix things up.”

The re-opening party will also reveal the return of another Fat Harry’s fixture — a painting of Jimi Hendrix. The original was lost in the fire, but artist Rick Dodd was commissioned to paint another. It’s “nothing like the old one,” Huling said, but captures the spirit that made the original such an important element of Fat Harry’s.

“This is a 70s bar,” Huling said. “Who was more popular then?”

Even the limited menu was plenty to celebrate for a number of patrons — employees of nearby businesses have been calling for weeks asking when they would reopen, and many customers stopped in on Friday to order their favorites. Sue Adler moved to the neighborhood in 1987 and quickly became a regular at Fat Harry’s — she estimates that she ate there four to five times a week before last year’s fire. In the 362 days since, she said, she switched to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — a poor substitute for the “usual” she enjoyed again on Friday.

“Hamburger,” Adler said. “And it’s rare!”

At another end of the bar, chatting with Huling, was Becky McKearan. Her Internet service was down at her home, so McKearan knew where to turn.

“I live right down the street. My boyfriend and I started dating here, and we’ve been here since,” McKearan said. “It’s just a great family bar.”

Huling said she is grateful for the outpouring of support since the fire, but not surprised. The bar’s reputation extends far and wide — family and friends constantly tell her about traveling while wearing a Fat Harry’s T-shirt, and being stopped by people in other countries exclaiming that they love the bar.

“Wherever you go,” Huling said, “everybody knows about Fat Harry’s.”

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